Archive : October 2011

Steve Jobs, Calligraphy & Crowd-Sourcing

Posted October 6, 2011

You know that game where you fantasize about whom you’d invite to a dinner party?  Well, Steve Jobs was always high on my list.  (Along with Winston Churchill).  When I heard that he died, I felt a tremendous sense of sadness and loss.  Jobs was someone who saw a better way to do things, a future none of us could envision, and fought like hell to take us there.

But though I’ve never met him, I sense he wouldn’t want us to wax rhapsodic on his passing, but rather to learn and be inspired from his life.  In that spirit, here are 3 lessons we can take away from his life and the impact he’s had on us all.

1) Inspiration Comes in Unusual Places In an industry whose products are brutally cost-competitive almost to the point of being commoditized, Apple’s products have always cost more than their competitors.  They got away with that by marrying superior technology to stylish industrial design.   And where did Jobs get his inspiration for Apple’s graceful minimalist aesthetic?  Calligraphy.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College after one semester, but returned later to audit a class in calligraphy, which he says influenced Apple’s sleek, polished, understated design.  Are you grasping the irony here?  Calligraphy is a slow, deliberate, old-school art form that on the surface seems the antithesis of modern technology.

Takeaway:              To truly tap your creative potential, expose yourself to areas completely outside your normal frame of reference.

2) Second Chances. If you’re under 25 years old, you probably don’t realize that in 1986 Jobs was actually fired from the company he founded.  Apple meandered through mediocrity for the next ten years.  It wasn’t until Jobs was given a second chance to run the company that he truly took Apple to the next level and transformed so many aspects of our every day lives.  Jobs later said that being fired was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Bill Belichick, widely considered the smartest coach in football, has a similar story.  After being a brilliant defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, he was given his chance as a head coach of the Cleveland Browns where he failed miserably, compiling only one winning season in five years.  It was on his second chance, as head coach of the Patriots, that he truly made his mark, winning 3 Super Bowls.

Takeaway:              Sometimes failure is the missing ingredient to genius.

3) Crowd Sourcing is for Sissies.  Apple never held focus groups.  According to Jobs, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

That’s worth noting in today’s era of user-generated, crowd-sourced agendas, event locations, menus, themes, etc.  Crowd-sourcing has its uses, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.  The next time someone pushes you to incorporate it into your event and you want a reason to say no, just say, “Apple never holds focus groups.”  There’s really no response to that, except perhaps, “well, we’re not even going to pretend to be innovative.”

Takeaway:            Shackle innovation to group consensus at your own risk.

The list of incredible product innovations brought to us by Steve Jobs is long indeed.  But perhaps it is the life lessons we can glean from him that are even more impactful.

Telling Truth to Power (Clients)

Posted October 2, 2011

“The customer is always right,” is a mantra we hear so often that it’s become canonized as one of the first rules of business.  Alas, like most sweeping generalizations, it is also blindly misapplied.  For while it might make plenty of sense in retail, when it comes to consulting (or event planning), it can ruin your business or your career.  Here’s why.

In retail, stores sell products.  Retailing is simply about delivering those products to consumers through a pleasing, cost-effective experience.  If a consumer is unhappy with the experience they get at a retail store, the assumption is that they can always go somewhere else to buy the same product, so there’s almost no reason NOT to make the customer happy, even at the retailer’s short term detriment.  Keeping the customer as a continued shopper, in the long run, is the ultimate goal.

Service businesses, on the other hand, provide much more customized interactions.  The client comes to us for our specific, individual advice and expertise.  We take time to learn about them, their events, their goals, styles and desires, and then design and recommend solutions specifically tailored to their needs.  If the client wants to do something that is not going to work, it is not only in our best interest to push back, it’s in the client’s interest too.

If you’re meeting with your accountant to discuss your taxes, and you want to write off your massage treatments as a business expense, (because, hey, you come up with your best ideas on the massage table), would you want him to say, “whatever you want, you’re the customer”? No way.  You want him to look you hard in the eye and say, “Nice try.  Unless your client is the masseuse, that’s not going to work.”

Pamela Fields, CEO of Stetson

Sometimes pushing back to a demanding client can be difficult and awkward.  But that’s what they need, and that’s what will make you invaluable to them.  In the Business Section of today’s New York Times (Valuing Those Who Tell You the Bitter Truth), Pamela Fields, the CEO of Stetson, talks about the importance of hearing divergent opinions from people who feel comfortable disagreeing with her.

The phrase, ‘Speak Truth to Power’, is typically applied to politics, where too often our leaders surround themselves with sycophants who are more interested in sucking up than in telling the truth.  But the mantra applies everywhere.  In sports we often see star athletes get ruined because there is no one in their entourage who speaks up about what’s in the athletes best interest if it means disagreeing with him.  (think Mike Tyson)

And it certainly applies to working with our event clients, whether we are independents or agencies talking to paying clients, or in-house planners talking to our internal business unit clients.  Soften the blow as needed, but you have to deliver the news.  If the client’s really set on a lousy idea, try,

That’s a great idea.  Unfortunately I just don’t think it’s appropriate for this event because _______.  Believe me, I’d love to say we can do it, but it’s my professional responsibility to advise you why I don’t think it’s going to work.  The last thing I want is for you to come to me afterwards and say, ‘You’re the professional; why didn’t you warn me about this?!’  So this is me, officially warning you that I don’t think this will work.”

It’ll be difficult, no question.  But they will respect you more as an expert, and you will become indispensable to them.  And that, ultimately, is what you want.